There’s a fundamental debate occurring about how to create jobs for Americans who have been bypassed by technological and global trends. President Trump’s approach seems to be to undo the forces of globalization and force manufacturers to bring jobs back to the United States. But the right response is to send a clear message that Americans need more training for the jobs that are already available. That’s not as politically sexy because it requires that Americans take their economic futures into their own hands rather than have someone hand them a prize on a platter.
I was an editor at Business Week when NAFTA was being debated and ultimately enacted. It allowed many industries to create continental scale operations that took advantage of the lowest possible costs and the best sets of skills. It’s no exaggeration to say that NAFTA helped save the American auto industry from their Japanese competitors. NAFTA has had a profoundly positive impact on the American economy writ large.
Undoing it now to force manufacturers to shift low value-added jobs back to the United States does not make any sense. What we need to be doing is upskilling our workforce on a much larger, more systematic manner than we are doing. I have been making this argument in my book, The Next American Economy, which appeared six years ago, and in this cover story for Chief Executive magazine four years ago entitled, “The Great Skills Mismatch.”
I was pleased to see this article in The Economist recently. Here are the most important points: “America’s most technologically-advanced manufacturers are now expanding confidently….A huge problem is that factories are struggling to find enough skilled workers. The Manufacturing Institute, an industry body, and Deloitte calculate that there will be nearly 3.5 million manufacturing job openings in America in the decade to 2025, but 2 million may go unfilled.”
It concludes: “Continued technological progress will keep manufacturing employment from returning to past heights. But if firms can find enough skilled workers to guide the machines (on the assembly line), the sector’s output could really take off.”
This is what must be done rather than turning back the clock.